Helio Castroneves ended the longest win drought in his IZOD IndyCar Series career in the eighth annual Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg, bringing his No. 3 Shell/Pennzoil Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone Indy car to Victory Lane for his first win since winning at Twin Ring Motegi in the fall of 2010.
In earning his 26th Indy car victory, Castroneves is tied for 15th on the all-time list with Rodger Ward.
This was the ebullient Brazilian's third win on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St Petersburg road/airport circuit and the third time he's been followed to the checkered flags by Team Target's Scott Dixon, whose Dallara/Honda/Firestone machine was a gaping 5.5292 seconds. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third with another Chevrolet-powered DW12 Dallara.
As is his habit, Castroneves climbed the fence, but not at his customary stop on this circuit, the first turn. This time he climbed the Turn 10 wall and embraced the street sign that made that portion of the course Dan Wheldon Way, honoring his fallen comrade. It was an emotional moment for the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and made him a bit more subdued than normal even with this long-awaited win.
"It's been a little while, but it never gets old," he said of the victory. "At the start of the race I didn't want to do the same mistakes that we did last year (where he caused a multi-car first-turn accident), so we cooled down, we kept cool, we lost probably one position but everything was fine until the play started playing in our hand." When he saw his teammates pitting under the first caution, his group decided to stay out, he said.
Castroneves insisted he "didn't plan it, it was just the way it happened," when he stopped the car in Turn 10. "There was the sign 'Dan Wheldon Way.' For me, and for all of us, the drivers and the fans, not having him here certainly we'll miss. But we've got to remember him as he lived, the way he lived and continue to pray for his family."
Dixon acknowledged "we didn't have the speed and we seemed to burn the tires up really quick. I'm happy to finish--I haven't finished here in a while--so it's nice to come out here in St Pete and get some good points." He does believe that his team has "some work to do. We've got a good package at the moment but Helio was a man on a mission and he was far too fast."
Third finisher Hunter-Reay, who took second place here in 2009 admitted, "It was a fuel strategy race and the Chevy engine was getting greet fuel mileage. We really had to take our time to finish to the end. We tok a gamble on making it in two stops instead of three and that's just part of the game."
There were 13 cars on the lead lap at the close. James Hinchcliffe finished fourth, Ryan Briscoe, who led nine laps took fifth, Simon Pagenaud came from 16th in an outstanding drive to finish sixth (which is where he would have started had he not changed engines on Friday), polesitter Will Power was a non-entity after making his first pit stop during the first of three cautions and finished seventh, while EJ Viso took eighth, Charlie Kimball finished ninth and Justin Wilson completed the top 10.
Notably, Josef Newgarden finished his first Indy car race in 11th place for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing after starting 19th, Graham Rahal was 12th and Dario Franchitti was 13th, the final driver on the lead lap. Franchitti ran out of fuel on the last lap and it cost him four spots. The highest finishing Lotus driver was also the highest starting Lotus driver - Alex Tagliani in the Team Barracuda-BHA car for the team that won Indy last year with Dan Wheldon driving - he took 15th position at the checkeres.
This was a quick race at just under two hours and there were only three caution periods. Rookie Katherine Legge brought out the yellow for four laps on lap 13, when her Dallara/Lotus/Firestone Indy car stopped at the top of the front straight with engine cut-out, a problem that Lotus' Claudio Berro had acknowledged on Saturday. The same engine cut-out difficulty would stem the forward progress of Legge's Dragon Racing teammate Sebastien Bourdais, who raced his way as high as third (!) before stopping after completing 73 laps.
The second caution flew from lap 20-27 for James Jakes, who suffered a braking problem on his Honda-powered Dale Coyne entry. He slid into the Turn 10 tires, returned to the pits without his nose cone but was unable to continue after completing 19 laps.
The third caution came out when Castroneves nudged Ed Carpenter's Chevy-powered DW12 at the exit of the final, 14th turn on Lap 46 and spun the driver. Race control deemed it was a racing incident and didn't penalize the Brazilian. Carpenter continued to finish 18th, the final car still running, two laps down.
There were some notable non-finishers. Tony Kanaan, who completed every lap of every race in his 2004 championship season, fell out with a charging issue that seemed to afflict many Chevrolet drivers. "I think it was the alternator," he said. Takuma Sato led 11 laps before succumbing to gearbox problems on the 74th lap in his Honda-powered car.
After leading the warmup session this morning, Mike Conway retired after losing both third and fourth gears on his sequential paddle-shift in AJ Foyt Racing's Honda-powered racer and JR Hildebrand lost fuel pressure in his Chevy-powered car.
There's no rest for the Indy car drivers and teams--and suppliers--as the second race occurs next week at the permanent Barber Motorsports Park road course.